McCartney III - review
There exists a few reels of extraordinary television footage which show a 62 year old Son House fighting to rekindle the difficult love affair he suffered with his muse. He’d been recently re-discovered after a long search working at a train station by Nick Perls and Dick Waterman. He’d settled here, for a while, after having served time in the Mississippi State Penitentiary for manslaughter, eventually falling into exile and alcohol ridden anonymity.
Taking the advice to ‘leave Dodge’ upon his release, he very nearly disappeared forever until learning of the second wave of his popularity from Perls and Waterman amongst the burgeoning Boomer folk blues scene of the early-mid 1960’s. From here he sought redemption, fighting to shake off his addiction and painfully re-learn his old ‘30s material and guitar technique, having not played for nearly 30 years. The result was a forceful but frail impersonation of the powerhouse player he once was. Ravaged by years of heavy drinking, his hands were unsteady and his voice wavered. His performance however, was brutal and the commitment, emphatic.
Son House came to mind in the opening notes of McCartney III opener Long Tailed Winter Bird and in some of the moments that followed, in particular Kiss of Venus - two of McCartney III’s key tracks. The former's a driving, riff powered instrumental that serves to both raise hope for what lies ahead and settle the nerves. Here's the sound of yearning for freedom, recorded during the first lockdown of 2020. Isn’t this what Paul McCartney’s art's for, after all? Why the worry? You’re in Macca’s hands now. Sit back, look out at the frost covered garden. Do you miss me? Do you feel me? he asks. Always, we answer, but please be kind.
In LTWB, we have a combination of all the ingredients we seek in McCartney's work. The production is clear and clean, much like the previous two iterations of the McCartney project, the drums sound heavy and more like Ringo than perhaps ever before. The attack is committed, the command still in reach, though the voice is now more disguised in the mix and increasingly frail - the elating high notes of the chorus are reached for and momentarily grasped at by finger tips. Melody springs from guitar and bass and intermittently a voice that weaves in and out in a way that suggests you’re about to find what you were hoping to hear.
Find My Way, sounding like a full continuation of the material from 2018’s Egypt Station finds McCartney in full pop-swing. Funny, a near 80 year old writing pop music of such authenticity is something we’ve come to expect, but we should never surrender to the fact that no one else on earth can do this so well, so easily, so frequently at such a vintage. Dylan can still make you think and shock you with his intellect (the only other elder statesman of ‘rock’ who’s enjoying some blistering form), but Paul can still make you dance (a bit) at 78 years of age. Wings-esque guitar lines, coupled with modern, airy production and hooky, memorable sections throughout (this is Paul McCartney after all), we realise that we’re home and collectively exhale. This is all we’d hoped for. It’s a strong start.
It’s only a minute or so into Pretty Boys however that we fully appreciate that we're listening to a new Paul McCartney album because here’s a clanger. One that Nigel Godrich would have told Paul to go back to the naughty step and rewrite, else he won’t be allowed to play with his Studer.
Here come the pretty boys, gonna set your world on fire // bicycles for hire // working for the squire
…sings Paul, the first clue that this collection is going to be as pleasingly and frustratingly uneven as the previous two McCartney releases. It’s an idea without a song, or a song without an idea, which is difficult to judge clearly because it’s also the melody that I found myself turning over in my head long after the album was over. Classic bloody catchy Macca.
And because it's 2020, the disappointments keep coming. The next track Woman and Wives barely exists outside of a reasonably pretty, if laboured melody. The voice is mixed low again but to detract from the lyrical content as much as the vocal one suspects. The mature McCartney vocal palette is not to be scorned at or hidden away however - it's to be enjoyed and absorbed; we know what the younger man was capable of - he was in possession of probably the single most versatile rock/pop voice of the 20th century, and I’m sure no one is as frustrated with his diminishing range as he - but the artist we have now cannot hide himself away from his mortal state. He sings his truth whenever he opens his mouth and it brings us closer to the man, the artist and despite himself, it’s crucial to the new found profundity that exists within his more recent work than if he still had full facility nearing his eighth decade. Still, this song is a ponderous skipper.
As hopes for a classic fade quicker than a potential Brexit trade agreement, Lavatory Lil comes bursting through your front door and takes a seat in your front room. Sounding like a well recorded 1961 Beatles playing a Queens of the Stoneage cover at the Cavern, 'Lil's a light but enjoyable throwaway, reminding us that this is nothing more than Paul having fun. You’re along for the ride because you want to be here. Begging for a link or comparisons to Polythene Pam, it bears no relation outside its punny title. It’s mercifully short however, and marks a moment of levity that the run of songs was calling out for.
It’s a sign that things are looking up, because here at last is a sustained moment of brilliance that warrants the collection. Deep Deep Feeling is not only the best song on the album by some distance and likely his best song for some time, but also the most…believable. Recalling the Arctic Monkeys’ Do I Wanna Know, the production is sparse, giving space to allow percussion and toms to lay the foundation for Paul to emote something real. The production's wide open, the secondary vocals urgent and beautifully positioned, drums tasteful. It’s an effective arrangement that allows the space for Paul to relax and slip into a performance that finds him sounding alarmingly like Alex Turner. The most successful song in the collection and an astounding piece of work for a man of his age to produce in his garage.
Keeping with the Arctic Monkeys' inspired soundscape, this time sounding like any number of songs on Humbug, Slidin’ this time calls out for a Helter Skelter manic McCartney vocal instead of the croon on Deep Deep Down and one he’s able to deliver here, Slidin’ is, however, atmospheric, meaty and near complete. These are very good songs.
Kiss of Venus, speaks of a man less sure of his conviction in producing the steady hand of meticulous melody than before, but prevailing anyway. Reminiscent of Flaming Pie's Calico Skies and permeated with a hiding, creaking voice, it serves as a reminder of our Paul’s humanity and is all the more moving for it. One of a clutch of the best songs he’s produced in quite a while, harpsichord effect and all. Venus, the planetary immortality that he’s come back to more than once serves as a context that doubles down the intent.
Eventually, despite his prodigious ability to raise new melodies and original lines from overly familiar chordings and time signatures, there has to come a point when fragments of song lie to the writer in order to feign originality. Either that, or Paul decided to lift the opening from Love is All Around and couple it with ELO’s Mr Blue Sky anyway. It’d be nice to believe this to be the slightest form of revenge against Jeff Lynne and Harrison, the latter having forced Paul’s hand into accepting Lynn as the producer of The Beatles’ Anthology songs Free As A Bird and Real Love - something Paul’d have liked to have done himself. One can’t help but look beyond coincidence when it comes to The Beatles and their members, where it may or may not exist. We all need some meaning and there are fewer more satisfying places to look for it than an ageing Beatle’s new solo album.
We’re given time to search for whatever we want well into the next track as Deep Down passes by, lost in its meandering groove on its way to nowhere. A rolling soundscape filled with mellotron and brass effects that could have found kin on Wildlife or the second disc of Red Rose Speedway and other less focused works from Paul. Still, sonically, it sounds good and finds the singer in good spirits.
Then, a bref reprive of Winter Bird before When Winter Comes does what it says and ushers in the end by taking us back to near the beginning. WWC is one of a batch of songs that could claim to be as good as anything McCartney has released in the last twenty years. It’s no coincidence that it’s a brother to Heart of the Country in spirit and form from 1971’s early solo masterpiece, RAM. He's in his happy place, home, but from the perspective of a man 49 years further down the road.
Son House was 16 years younger than McCartney is now when he made his faltering but moving comeback in the autumn of his life. He presented a very old man by the time the spotlight came around to him once more; still capable of power, nuance fading, a ghost on a stool. Put in this context, Paul is cast as nothing short of a marvel. McCartney's enjoying a new phase of popularity and commercial success that recent work suggests that he is truly worthy of, but probably wasn’t expecting. Through commitment, conviction and attack, he still has near full facility in his coercing of melody and arrangement as well as the endearing tendency to still be the slightly erratic Paul McCartney.
These songs, built from half-finished sketches or kernels of ideas that had been laying in digital bottom drawers and put together ‘cos his tour and Glastonbury appearance got cancelled do nothing but present to us the real man, his mortal fallibility now proceeding his indefatigable Macca-ness and bringing us closer to him for it.
One often wondered what it must be like being Paul McCartney. Now, finally, we can hazard a guess at what the ageing man, stuck in his shed as the world hid away, time only to think and wonder at what’s going to happen next thinks and feels. He’s one of us, and we knew him so well the whole time.
McCartney III is released on the 18th December.